What is an ethnographic study?

How UX designers can use observations to solve real-world problems through digital products.

Before we get into the details of this particular field of… uh… field study and how it relates to user research and design, let’s understand what is meant by ’ethnography’.

What is ethnography?

According to the BMJ, Ethnography is a qualitative study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions that occur within groups, teams, organisations, and communities.

(Qualitative means it’s all about thoughts, feelings and observations rather than cold, numerical data. So you’ll need to remember to take a notebook and pen.)

This type of anthropological study dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and its aim was not just to gather information on how people behave and interact, but also how their location, environment and other contexts affects their day-to-day lives.

So how do this relate to our modern practices of user research? I’m glad you asked! (Although if you hadn’t asked, I could have just spent the rest of the day doing crosswords in my Junior Puzzle magazine.)

What is an ethnographic study?

As you will have gathered from the above, it’s a field study technique, which involves talking with people and observing them perform their tasks in their own natural context.

So yes, this unfortunately means you have to leave the comfort of your living room to do it. Unless you’re doing an ethnographic study of the cat, in which case the bias caused by your own presence will render the results unscientific.

But what’s the difference between an ethnographic study and a usability study?

As UXmatters suggests, usability is about how people directly interact with a technology in the more traditional sense, ethnography is about how people interact with each other.

So UX designers would take this ethnographic research and use it to solve a problem through a product or technology.

A designer solving a problem with technology. The problem being ‘why is the internet so mean?’

What’s the difference between ethnographic study and other field study methods?

Ethnography takes a wider picture of a culture, while other types of studies, such as participant observation, diary studies, interviews, video, photography or artefact analysis (devices they use throughout the day) are just different ways of approaching ethnography.

An in-depth and entertaining guide to getting started with user research

Why is ethnographic research so good?

  • You can ascertain what demand there is for certain types of product, and whether your own ideas would be suitable
  • You get to see how users interact with technology in their own setting, away from a lab or your stuffy office
  • You might find issues that a lab-based usability test wouldn’t uncover

What are the drawbacks of ethnographic research?

  • It takes a longer period of time
  • It can be quite costly
  • Analysing the qualitative data and producing a report that makes your research clear and concise can be difficult
  • Your very presence as a researcher in the participant’s lives can colour the results (your merely ‘being there’ is an unnatural environmental factor)
  • You have to make sure your own biases or opinions are not colouring your findings

How do you carry out an ethnographic study?

You can make your observations from any place where there are people you need to study (caveat: that you have permission from) – so a person’s workplace, home, out and about – wherever they interact with people and objects within practical reason.

The length of time can range from hours to days to months. Just bear in mind that the longer you spend studying or interacting with someone, the more used to you they will get. But of course, practicalities and budgets will always be an issue. As will the subject’s patience.

As we’ve mentioned, you can use all kinds of methodologies to run an ethnographic study, however these are the main umbrellas under which you can choose to operate:

Passive observation

As detailed by Experience UX, passive observation is basically ‘shadowing’ – you follow and observe your subjects without interacting with them. This may also be why that giant potted plant has been following you around lately.

Of course, you will have already interviewed your subjects before beginning to shadow them (again, you don’t want to be a total creepo) and this will help you learn more about them and their needs.

You can document your observations through notes, photographs, videos, voice recordings or sketches.

Researcher studying subjects and their interactions, before their subsequent arrest

Active participation

This is for researchers who need to get hands-on, especially if studying people at work. It basically means: join the team and learn how to do the job!

As Michael Kilman answers in his Quora response, “Basically if you want to understand a fishing culture, you don’t sit on the dock with binoculars, you go out and help make the nets, catch fish, cook the fish and spend time with the people and participate. By participating and paying attention to what is happening around you, you will better be able to construct your ethnography because you will begin to understand things from their perspective.”

Contextual interviews

These can be done during or after ‘active participation’, where you can ask the subjects’ questions in their own natural environment, or you can just observe behaviours and then ask questions (again in their own setting) to gain more insight.

What information should I capture?

As UXmatters suggests, it’s a good idea to have a goal you can focus on, otherwise you’ll be stuck not knowing what to write down, or you’ll be scribbling furiously and have endless reams of observations.

However you also shouldn’t be too focused, as the point of this exercise is to find solutions to real-world problems, not to already have a finished product that needs a demographic to target.

UXmatters lists a few useful ideas about what information you should capture:

  • Describe the physical aspects of the environment: if the participant is at work, including the layout of workstations, desk space and clutter, collaboration and conversation areas.
  • Key events and incidents: what happened, and who did what? What is your impression of these incidents, and what are team members’ thoughts in regard to and interpretations of these events? How do they feel about them?

How do you analyse ethnographic data?

The recommendation from Experience UX, is for researchers to look for patterns and themes from the data. They will look for the challenges and barriers that users encountered and how this effected different users.

They also recommended the use of an affinity diagram, which is a common tool in project management that allows you to group together large numbers of observations based on their relationships.

This will allow you to look for patterns in clear, collaborative manner. Plus you get to use Post-it notes, so double-win.


This article couldn’t have been completed without the following invaluable resources: